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Leitner's Cinematography Corner, No. 3

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D.W. Leitner

Leitner at play

You may have already heard the announcements.

No, not Canon's announcement this week of the new 1D Mark IV EOS HDSLR with 1080p/24 and an eyebrow-raising ISO of 12,800. Not the announcement of an upcoming firmware upgrade to enable 1080p/24 in current Canon EOS 5D Mark IIs. Nor Carl Zeiss' first T* Distagons for Canon's EOS EF bayonet mount, shipping by the time you read this. Not even Apple's new 21.5in. iMac with a full 1920x1080 LED backlit display and better specs than MacBook Pro, now a lean, mean one-piece HD editing machine.

These are all true. But I'm talking about Monday's announcements from Sony—which you might have missed—one of which shuts me up.

Sony PMW-EX1R

Rear of new Sony PMW-EX1R with orange-highlighted switches, HDMI port, and
flatter handgrip.

Exhibit A: the new PMW-EX1R. A refresh or revision or reboot (you decide what R stands for) of Sony's popular two-year-old XDCAM PMW-EX1 palm-held camcorder.

Exhibit B: the new PMW-350, a groundbreaking 2/3in. shoulder-mount EX-series camcorder that records to solid-state SxS cards.

(Since this is a column and not a product review, I'm only going to dive into the shallow end of the pool here. Full-on reviews will follow later.)

At a distance, the EX1R appears unchanged. But as Mies van der Rohe would have put it, God is in the details here. In a nutshell, Sony has addressed every single inadequacy of the original EX1.

For those benighted souls still plying their trade in standard definition, the EX1R now records SD directly. SxS cards can even hold clips of both SD and HD shots at the same time.

A full-size HDMI connector now accompanies the existing uncompressed HD-SDI output.

But the true bugaboos of the EX1 were:

  1. Lousy ergonomics due to a cantilevered handgrip that placed all weight on the wrist
  2. A breathtakingly bad on/off switch design that resulted in EX1s often inadvertently left on, resulting in drained batteries
  3. A badly placed manual/auto-iris switch, awkward to use
  4. Inadequate infrared filtration, rendering black clothing in subdued lighting various shades of brown. (Tiffen just released an IR filter to address IR contamination in the EX1. Thank you, Art Adams, for your perseverance on this issue.)

Well, as Gomer Pyle channeling Captain Marvel might have said, "Shazam!"

The handgrip is now flatter and thus closer to the EX1R's center of gravity. Day-Glo orange has been painted underneath the sliding on/off switch to make its position easily apparent (the black-on-black of the EX1 was impossible to see, even in bright circumstances). A positive locking mechanism now stops the switch in the off position when moved from either camera or media.

I, for one, hammered Sony pretty hard on that last one, in print and in private, because it was inexcusable coming from a premier camcorder designer. But it was nothing compared to the inexplicable placement of the iris auto/manual sliding switch on the operator's side of the lens barrel. And how, exactly, is one to finger this switch when handholding?

Sony PMW-350

The Sony PMW-350 and 28mm Carl Zeiss DigiPrime with viewfinder masked to widescreen 2.40 aspect ratio.

Photo by D.W. Leitner

Those attending my talks at DV Expo in Pasadena, Calif., in late September will recall my railing about the need, on the part of all pro camcorder manufacturers, to hew to convention and ALWAYS locate a push auto-iris button at the far end of the zoom handgrip—just like every 2/3in. zoom in existence, for as long as I can remember. My right hand's little finger grows frustrated, even angry, when it reaches there and finds nothing.

At DV Expo, addressing the entire show floor, as it were, I forcefully made the point that whether you come from a drive-on-the-right-side or drive-on-the-left-side country, your car will always locate the gas pedal on the right and the brake to the left. Can you imagine the havoc that would transpire without this basic convention? Why can't all manufacturers of professional camcorders take a page from this?

Sony PMW-350 with no lens

The Sony PMW-350 at 7lbs. (sans lens & battery) is a lightweight.
Photo by D.W. Leitner

Well, Sony has listened. The EX1R features a one-push auto-iris button at the far end of the handgrip. (Thank you!) And although the position of the iris auto/manual sliding switch remains the same, perhaps next go-around this too can be moved alongside the one-push button, where it belongs.

Oh, and did I mention that the superb high-res color LCOS viewfinder introduced by the EX1's HDV counterparts, the HVR-Z7U and HVR-Z5U—which blew the EX1's fuzzy LCD viewfinder out of the water from Day One—has been grafted onto the EX1R?

Now, that's a slam-dunk.

IR contamination in black detail has been improved, too, with the addition of a new IR cut filter.

 
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Other nifty new features include a 15-second Cache Memory for continuous prerecord (capture is initiated when you press record), a more nimble audio limiter, and dual-threaded holes for more secure tripod mounting. Firmware upgrades are now user-friendly.

Cinema types like me will also appreciate the EX1R's new viewfinder markings for 1.66, 1.85, 2.35, and 2.40 aspect ratios.

About the PMW-350: I'll contribute much more in the weeks to come, about its triple Full-HD 2/3in. CMOS sensors, low power consumption (15W, no fan, no power-save mode), and low profile and weight (7lbs. before lens and battery).

But two features will leap out immediately to operators everywhere: a new B4-mount, 8-128mm (16x) Fujinon lens with hybrid auto/manual focus and auto flange back-adjustment—just like its antecedent on the EX1 and PMW-EX3. (No image stabilization, though.) And a new viewfinder based on the 3.5in., 920,000-dot LCD introduced on the EX1/EX3 series. For me, viewing through it was like looking directly at a studio HD monitor. All I could say was, "Wow ... who needs peaking?"

The 350, for many, will be a game-changer.

More cool news from Sony: expanded media choices. A lower-cost SxS card (called SxS-1) to complement the original SxS Pro card, the trade-off being shorter life span. Like Panasonic's new, more affordable E-series P2 cards, SxS-1 cards are multilevel cell (MCL) flash, cheaper to make than the original single-level cell (SLC) flash. In case you wondered.

And Sony will introduce an SxS adapter for Memory Stick, MEAD-MS01. If you can't beat SDHC-to-ExpressCard/34 adapters from Hoodman and eFilm, why not join them?